(continued...)

 

  Curiously, relatively few adoption records were sealed over the next 42 years. By the early 60s, though, the most vocal supporters of secrecy in adoption (primarily the small minority of adoptive parents who had actually opted to have their child's records sealed during the "upon request" years), began to realize that things were not going according to plan.  In the 1960s, when the first big crop of Illinois adoptees (basically, those conceived during the crazy pre- and post-World War II years) began to search for their roots by simply following the impressive paper trail their parents had left behind, many adoptive parents learned, to their dismay, that their children's records had never been sealed at all. Records for all Cook County adoptions (including the complete names of the birth parents alongside those of their adoptive parents) were (and still are) available for public viewing on microfilm in law libraries in the Loop (click here to see a copy of a 1950 Chicago Daily Law Bulletin notice).

Spurned on by adoption support groups like the Adoptee Liberty Movement, adoptees and birth parents with the necessary time, resources and determination began to search...and to find. These pioneers were the first Illinois adoptees to reunite with their birth families.  And, when word of their sometimes happy, sometimes disappointing, reunions began to circulate, adoptive parents and others who had truly believed "no one would ever know" began banging on legislator's doors...both in Springfield and in small towns and large cities across the state of Illinois—and demanding that the "bread crumb trail" be swept under the legislative rug.

    A Cook County ordinance passed in 1962 ended the practice of listing the birth mother's surname and/or the child's birth name in the legal notices of adoption published in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.  Children adopted after January 1, 1963, and their birth parents, had now lost their access to adoption information which had always been a matter of public, and legal, record (click here to see a copy of a 1965 Chicago Daily Law Bulletin notice).  A state-wide law (HB 1944, sponsored by an adoptive father/Senator) passed in 19713 gave adoptive parents even greater control over their children's access to birth information by authorizing the deliberate falsification of an adoptee's place of birth on his or her amended birth certicate. "When a new certificate of birth is established," the law states, "the actual place and date of birth shall be shown; provided, in the case of adoption of a person born in this State by parents who were residents of this State at the time of the birth of the adopted person, the place of birth may be shown as the place of residence of the adoptive parents at the time of such person's birth, if specifically requested by them, and any new certificate of birth established prior to the effective date of this amendatory Act may be corrected accordingly if so requested by the adoptive parents or the adopted person when of legal age."

In 1971, the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, which had included the names of adoptive parents whose petitions for adoption had been finalized in their "Judments" section since the 1800s, suddenly stopped publishing this information and replaced this data (a useful tool for searching birth parents who know the date of their child's adoption) with an enigmatic message about adoption files being "impounded" from "this day forward" (click here to see a copy of the notice which appeared in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin in January of 1972). It is unclear whether this change in policy at the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin was due to a change in the law or merely a change in the publication's interpretation of existing laws.

Yet, despite minor changes in municipal and state laws, adoption decrees issued (and provided to adoptive parents) over the next 20 years continued to include the birth mother's name more than 90% of the time—a clear indication that the only birth parent confidentiality the law was concerned about was that between birth parent and birth child, not between adoptive parent and birth parent (click here to see a copy of an adoption decree from the late 40s and here to see a 1965 adoption decree). And, until 1989, the majority of adoptive parents had complete control over the availability of identifying information to their adopted children—even when their children had reached adulthood.

To make matters worse, those who had the biggest stake in keeping adoption records tightly closed (primarily the attorneys and adoption agencies that had been promising confidentiality to their adoptive parent clients and, in some cases, tripled their rates, or more, to "ensure" that the desired confidentiality was maintained) soon found themselves on the brink of extinction.

    A number of social phenomenas  had triggered the free fall decline of adoption rates during the 1970s. The first of these was a greater acceptance of out-of-wedlock pregnancies.  Enough round-bellied women had walked down the aisle by 1972 to make the distinction seem rather silly.  And, with the advent of the second phenomenon, legalized abortion, women began to give more thought to how they would resolve an unexpected pregnancy.  They had options now.  The choice wasn't a.  Shotgun wedding or, that failing, b. Adoption any more. Now it was wedding only if a wedding seemed like a really good idea, adoption only if all else failed, and abortion when neither of those options was palatable.  

The frenetic right wing fringe, angry and disappointed over the loss of the abortion battle, decided that encouraging adoption or, that failing, single parenthood (heaven forbid!), was the drum they would begin to beat.  To encourage fragile, confused young women to "choose life," pro-lifers, agencies and attorneys began promising single mothers-to-be just about anything they could think of.  You want your kid to live on a farm with ten gray ponies and a private lake?  You got it!   You prefer the big city and promises of an Ivy League education ?  You got it! Of course, all of these promises were verbal, and, of course, all of those who made them realized full well that verbal promises have a very limited shelf life (six months in the state of Illinois).  Others protected themselves by including a disclaimer on any written promises of openness or "confidentiality." The final paragraph of an "intention regarding the sharing of information" affidavit promulgated by Lutheran Social Services in 1978 stated that "the agency's response to a future request for information about (the birth parent's) identity (would) be subject to any obligation to disclose or withhold information which the law might… impose upon child welfare agencies in the future."

Whatever promises were made to these birth mothers (the overwhelming majority of whom were choosing "openness," not confidentiality), it is clear that there was never any real intention to allow this post-Roe v. Wade crop of adoptees unfettered access to their birth identities.  After all, there was no rush.  It would be 21 years before these promises to share the birth parent's identity would begin taking effect. They had plenty of time to straighten things out.

In the early 1980s, lawsuits were filed by two Illinois adoptees seeking to unseal their birth records through the court. The premise of the first suit, filed in 1981,4 was that confidentialty provisions in Illinois statute were a violation of the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution; in the second case, heard by the Illinois Appellate Court in 19835, the plaintiff contended that sealed records laws denied adoptees due process under law by interfering with their "statutory right to inherit from their natural parents." Not surprisingly, both court cases failed. But the publicity that surrounded these two cases in legal circles convinced many proponents of closed adoption that the gig was up...and that it was time to settle the "confidentiality" question once and for all. Sadly, these well-intentioned court cases triggered a rash of adoption reforms aimed at making sure Illinois' adoption records remained tightly sealed in the future...despite all these promises of "openness" being made to the majority of prospective birth mothers.

Within a year of the Appellate case, the Illinois General Assembly was considering the creation of a state-wide adoption registry6. According to the bill's primary sponsor in the Senate (an adoptive father whose adopted daughter was then 17 years old), there were "a lot of search groups going around the State of Illinois" in 1984, and this was "causing a lot of problems" for "everyone." It was the sponsor's hope that establishing an adoption registry would "put some of that to rest" and make "an orderly process out of what almost amounts to chaos at times."7   In 1985, the Illinois Adoption Registry officially opened its doors and the sponsoring Senator's daughter turned 18.

    Four years later, in 1989—at a time when "openness" had become the norm rather than the exception for new birth mothers—Illinois put the final nail on the coffin by taking the decision of whether "to seal or not to seal" an adoption record away from adoptive parents and their legal representatives8 and placing it squarely in the hands of the State. Despite claims made by the adoptive mother who sponsored the bill that the legislation would do "nothing to change the current practice,"9 the openness which had prevailed in adoption laws since the time of Moses was gone...and in its place was mandatory "confidentiality" for all and one of the most restrictive, expensive and ill-conceived mutual consent registries in the world.

Given the furor that the 1989 law set off in adoption reform circles—and in response to the open records bill which was introduced in the House the following year—Springfield lawmakers considered legislation allowing adult adoptees who wern born AND adopted in Illinois to access health and mental histories through a state-certified confidential intermediary (CI) program in 199010. Like the Adoption Registry which had preceded it by five years, the proposed Illinois CI program was one of the most restrictive and expensive state-run programs in the U.S.

Once the concept of "contact between adoptee and birth parent in cases where there is mutual consent" had been introduced into law via the Registry and Confidential Intermediary (CI) programs, multiple Illinois agencies  began launching their own fee-based registries and search assistance programs to compete with the statutory options (as well as offer search assistance to birth parents who were not eligible to use the CI Program until 2004).  Social workers, who had been hearing from searching triad members in increasing numbers since the 1960s, were often the driving force behind these new post-adoption services. However, another impetus behind some  agencies' decision to begin offering search assistance to adult adoptees and their birth parents had little to do with humitarianism; a number of agencies believed that offering search assistance to "their adoptees" and "their birth mothers" was a far safer proposition than allowing state-appointed investigators to start poking around in their files.

In addition, numerous private adoption agencies hoped that search assistance dollars would help bolster their revenues. Although agencies that put the heftiest price tags on their search programs are quick to protest that they "are not making money on this," the simple math (the cost of locating a person for whom you possess both the person's name and date of birth is $75 to $150, making the mark-up for agency searches between 100 and 300%) does not support their allegations. Although the CI law did not give agencies specific legal authority to operate their search assistance programs, no one seemed to have a problem with the post-adoption programs that popped up all over the heartland in the 1990s. But, as predictably as night follows day, the lack of accountability for some  private, agency-run programs potentially opened the door to fraud and a host of dubious business practices. And, disturbingly, one ramification of agency-run registries and search programs is that they gave private agencies an additional financial stake in the continued sealing of Illinois adoption records...and an incentive to maintain the new status quo.

Despite all the dramatic changes which had been made to Illinois adoption law between 1989 and 1990, the sealed records crusaders weren't quite finished.  Although the 1989 law had clearly sealed all adoption records going forward, its language was unclear on retrospective adoptions (particularly those that had not been sealed between 1945 and 1989).  In 1991, Senate Bill  680,11 a piece of legislation which listed prohibiting "the adopted person, unless an adult when the decree was entered, from examining the file" and restricting "birth parents from examining the file when they have consented to adoption or surrendered to an agency" among its primary objectives (implying that, under previous legislation, both of these options had been available; click here to see a complete recap of the bill's original objectives) was passed out of the Senate with little fanfare. The bill's House sponsor, Representative Wait, assured the House Judiciary I Committtee that SB 680 had been prompted by "a situation in Woodstock in which I represent and Senator Schaffer (the Senate sponsor) also represents in which a 12-year-old child was--found out they were an adopted child--and found out that actually their grandmother, their mother was actually their grandmother. So, this protects the confidentiality of the adoption law proceedings." (Click here to see a complete transcript of the 1991 Jud. I debate on SB 680.) Although Representative Wait was correct that paragraphs (b) and (d) of the proposed bill did eliminate the practice of listing the parties by name both in the court call and in the papers filed in the court of review, SB 680's most significant provision appeared in paragraph (c) (click here to see the final version of the bill) and had little to do with the traumatized young lady in Woodstock. In the third paragraph of Section 18 of the Illinois Adoption Act, SB 680 introduced language that, in effect, gave adoptive parents the opportunity to access identifying information regarding the birth parents via the adoption decree "for 30 days after the entry of the judgment of adoption," but sealed the decree from both the birth parent(s) and the adopted person pretty much forever. Yet, there was no mention of this ramification in Rep. Wait's Jud. I presentation...and, alarmingly, there is NO record of this or any other provision of SB 680 ever having been debated on the floor of either chamber of the Illinois General Assembly...or explained to any of the legislators who voted it into law (predictably, the vote was quasi-unanimous in both chambers). Nevertheless, in one fell swoop of the legislative sword, every adoption record that had not been sealed between 1945 and 1989 was retroactively sealed in 1991—along with all the once totally open pre-1945 birth records. Every single open adoption agreement made between 1974 and 1989 was nullified that same day.

Between 1989 and 1996, all efforts to return to a more humane solution failed miserably. Although there was a burgeoning "open records" movement in Illinois and "open records" bills were introduced during this 7-year period, only one of them (a 1990 effort that was "competing" with the CI bill introduced that year) actually made it out of the Illinois House—only to be relegated to the Rules Committee in the Senate and never be seen again...

In 1996, though, Illinois' adoption reform movement was galvanized by the introduction of the Uniform Adoption Act (UAA)12 in the Land of Lincoln. The UAA was an insidious piece of legislation that had been floating around since 1994. Among other things, the U.A. A. would have further exacerbated search efforts in Illinois by introducing harsh criminal penalties for searching, and, for this reason alone, it quickly caught the attention of adoption reformers across the state. Under the banner of the Illinois Coalition for Truth in Adoption (ICTA), open records proponents worked together to defeat the Illinois version of the U.A.A in November of 1996.

The following year, buoyed by their U.A.A. success, ICTA members drafted an open records bill13 which, predictably, never made it out of either chamber of the Illinois General Assembly. Working closely with IL State Representative Sara Feigenholtz (the sponsor of the open records bill) ICTA members proposed a series of compromise reform bills over the next eighteen months, but dissention within reform ranks and the adoption industry's tightly-held grip on the political process worked together to defeat all of these proposed reforms. In the spring of 1998, a reform of Illinois' CI statute (which would have removed the medical cause requirement and opened the program to birth mothers)14 was passed unanimously by the Illinois House...and never made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

    Undaunted, Rep. Feigenholtz and a small contingent of adoption reformers were still convinced that there was something that could be done to improve the lot of Illinois triad members. In February of 1999 Rep. Feigenholtz introduced legislation to totally revamp the 1985 Illinois Adoption Registry.15 Like the compromise efforts of 1997 and 1998, this head-to-toe overhaul of the state adoption registry was vehemently opposed by both a tiny fraction of closed records proponents and compromise-resistant factions of the adoption reform movement. But the sheer logic of the bill's many improvements (ability to exchange medical information, photographs and written statements through the Registry, waiver of the $40 registration fee for all those who agree to exchange medical information with biological relatives, release of the original birth certificate to the adoptee in the event of a match, opening the Registry to non-adopted siblings and inter-state adoptees and their birth families) was enough to ensure its passage into law on January 1, 2000...making the Illinois Adoption Registry and Medical Information Exchange (IARMIE) bill the first piece of reform legislation drafted and supported by a coalition of adoptees, birth parents and adoptive parents to become law in the Land of Lincoln. Four years later, Rep. Feigenholtz and the same small coalition of adopton triad members were at it again. This time they proposed a revamp of the state intermediary program (elimination of the need to show cause, expansion of the program to birth parents and some surviving relatives of deceased adoptees and birth parents) and additional improvements to the state registry (release of non-id to adult adoptees and birth parents through the Registry upon request); those changes were signed into law by Governor Rod Blagojevich in August of 2003 as P.A. 93-189...

   Yet, despite the legislative victories of the past few years, the sad irony of the history of adoption reform in Illinois is that, had she been born and adopted in Illinois, Sarah Polk's adoptive daughter would have had a far greater chance of accessing her birth information back in 1890... than a child adopted in a so-called "open adoption" in the year 2004.

Social worker Jane Adams once wrote: "Old-fashioned ways which no longer apply to changed conditions are a snare in which the feet of women have always become readily entangled..." Adam's observation is particularly applicable to U.S. adoption statutes, which, despite six decades of social progress, continue to ensnare not only tens of thousands of young women each year...but have also profoundly affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of adoptees and their birth and adoptive relatives. If you're interested in learning more about efforts to help untangle the millions of feet currently caught in the "closed adoption snare," please click on the link to our Legislative Reform section below...(To access additional information on legislation, court cases and quotes referred to in this section, please click here...)